The British in South Asia
The textile trade
The British East India Company - named to distinguish it from British trade in the West Indies - was founded in 1599 mainly to counter Portuguese domination of the spice trade. As soon as the British set up trading settlements in India, however, they were impressed by the quality of the textiles they found there. These had normally been used as goods for barter with the spice producers of Indonesia.
The painted and printed cottons, known as chintzes, were especially admired, as they had fast, bright colours superior to anything produced in Europe at that time. It was textiles, therefore, rather than spices which soon came to dominate trade between India and Britain.
The local designs on the painted cottons were considered unsuitable for British tastes, and specifications came from England as to how they should be modified. The result was a hybrid 'exotic' style, usually based on flowering tree patterns, which was used on wall-hangings, bedspreads and clothing throughout the eighteenth century.
The growth of the East India Company
Rivalry for trading privileges between the East India Companies of Britain and other countries, especially France, was so strong that the Companies set up their own armies to defend their interests.
Conflict between Britain and France during the Seven Years' War in Europe (1756-63) led to hostilities in India too, and the two countries began to wage war for control of southern India.
Robert Clive - now known as Clive of India - led the British armies to victory and effectively ended French influence in South India, while offering protection to the local rulers who had supported him. Clive also overcame both the French and local rulers to take power in Bengal in eastern India.
The Company grew immensely wealthy, and created great cities at Calcutta, Madras and, later, Bombay. During the eighteenth century, British merchants and administrators commanded luxurious households, and elegant furniture was made by Indian craftsmen to European taste.
Local materials such as ivory, ebony and rosewood were used to great effect and beautifully crafted desks and chairs were produced, especially in Bengal and Vizagapatam on the east coast.
East meets West: Ivory Chair
Elegant European styles of furniture were copied by Indian craftsmen using local materials, as in this ivory chair (pictured right). This chair, its pair and the accompanying table are of solid ivory. They were made in Murshidabad, the nawabi capital of Bengal and a famous centre of ivory-carving.
Furniture makers there made small quantities of western-style pieces, possibly only as commissions. Mani Begum of Murshidabad gave these pieces as part of a special gift to Warren Hastings, the first British Governor-General of India. Their western forms and exotic working reflect the blend of tastes at Indian courts at this time.
In the audio below, Christopher Cook and Amin Jaffer discuss how East meets West in the 18th century carved ivory chair.
By no means did all the local rulers comply with British administration. One of the most vigorously opposed to British rule was Tipu, Sultan of Mysore. His father, Haidar Ali, had already started challenging British supremacy in southern India in 1769, and four Mysore Wars were fought up to 1799. Tipu was killed in the decisive battle of Seringapatam in that year, fulfilling to the last his motto that 'it is better to die as a tiger than to live as a sheep.'
The decline of the East India Company
By the mid-nineteenth century, Britain had annexed huge areas of India. British administrators imposed stringent taxes and laws and damaged the livelihood of Indian craftsmen by importing cheap mill-made cloth from Lancashire.
Widespread discontent erupted among Indian troops in 1857, and the Company's troops lost control of much of northern and central India. In the wake of the revolt, the East India Company was abolished by the British Government, who took over direct responsibility for governing India. The last vestiges of the Mughal empire were also abolished, and in 1876 Queen Victoria was named Empress of India.
India became a key part of the British Empire, and Victorian influence on the Indian way of life, architecture and craftsmanship was very strong. Objects in the ornate Victorian taste were made for export to Britain, or for local rulers emulating the Victorian style in their palaces. Indian skills drew widespread admiration at the great international exhibitions that took place during the nineteenth century. The apparent placidity of the British Raj - a Sanskrit word meaning rule - was short-lived, however. The Indian National Congress, founded in 1885, pressed for independence from Britain, which was eventually achieved in 1947.
With independence came renewed pride and interest in traditional crafts which, in many cases, had almost died out through lack of patronage. The textile arts in particular came to symbolise national self-sufficiency as European imports were rejected, and a new Indian middle class evolved to take the place of the Mughal and British patrons of the arts.